This is almost enough to make me want a pet hermit crab. Aki Inomata, a Japanese artist, made these (and other) 3D printed ‘shelters’ for some hermit crabs.
Here’s a video of moving day.
This is almost enough to make me want a pet hermit crab. Aki Inomata, a Japanese artist, made these (and other) 3D printed ‘shelters’ for some hermit crabs.
Here’s a video of moving day.
“This is a real video performance, a slow motion video, a sequence map with a traveling in front of 80 extras placed on 80 meters along a little road, lost in an industrial area. Filmed at 1000 frames/second with a Phantom flex 4k from a car driven at 50km/h, the shooting took 5 seconds for a 3’30 video: a living and dreamlike mural.”
Here’s the incredibly short making of video…
News broke yesterday that ISIS had beheaded 21 Egyptians for being “people of the Cross.” Images from the dramatic and disturbingly choreographed and colour coordinated public statement are circulating around the internet, but I have no desire to aid the spread of ISIS propaganda, so you won’t find them here.
What you will find is some further processing of these events, consider this the latest in a series of thinking out loud, which started with the “We Are N” post, and incorporates the post responding to the siege in Sydney’s Martin Place, and the post responding to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris.In the first, I explore the relationship between Christianity and martyrdom — something this post will unpack a bit more. In the second I suggest that one of the things we need to keep recognising in this ISIS situation is that people are motivated by religious beliefs, and that even if ISIS does not represent mainstream Islam (which, by all accounts from mainstream Islamic clerics, it does not), it does represent a form of religious belief. This is a case made in this article from The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. In the third, I suggest that the Cross of Jesus is the thing that should shape Christian responses to brokenness in the world, our ‘religious motivation,’ and that this is the key to responding well to radical religious violence.
This latest horror brings all of these threads together.
I don’t know how you process events like this — it probably depends greatly on your vision of the world, of life, and death. I’m still figuring out what an appropriate response to this looks like. Part of me is just an emotional ball of anger at the world, perhaps even at God, a raging, fist shaking lament at the injustice in yesterday’s events. Part of me cries out for the sort of “justice” that the Egyptian government has promised to exact, but I’m not sure that actually solves anything (it may even make things worse). Part of me believes that this event is an incredibly clear picture of the vision of hope held out by two different religious outlooks — involving two different sorts of “fundamentalist.”
If you’re not a Christian (or a Muslim) then you may look at this event, and other executions carried out by ISIS, as just another mark chalked up on the wall in a battle between two groups fighting over whose imaginary friend has more power, if you’re a mainstream Muslim you may be horrified that, once again, you’ll be called on to explain the actions of people who have taken up the name of your faith and used it to destroy others. If you, like me, are a Christian, you might be trying to figure out how to parse out the simultaneous shock and horror at this situation, the turmoil in your own inner-monologue as you grapple with the question “what if my faith were tested like this,” and, perhaps you might worry that you have what some (even you, as you mull it over) might consider a perverse sense that these Christians are heroes, whose faith encourages you in your own suffering, or lack of suffering.
Hopefully, the universal human response — beyond the response of those carrying out the killings — is one that involves the realisation that these events are a very loud, very clear, indicator that something is very wrong with this world. It may be that you think religion, and violence like this, is at the heart of what is wrong with the world, or it may be that this brokenness we see in the world causes us to seek after God, forcing us to work through the different pictures of God we find in different religious frameworks.
This particular story — the execution of 21 “people of the Cross” is actually a picture of two religious fundamentalists acting entirely consistently with the fundamentals of their beliefs (not necessarily as fundamentalists of everyone who chooses a similar label — but actions that are consistent with the motivations of the people involved).
In any of these cases you might wonder what motivates a person to act like this — as a religious fundamentalist — either to carry out such atrocities on fellow humans, or to not renounce your faith in the face of such an horrific, violent, death? In both cases the answer is caught up with the religious notion of hope — a vision of the future, both one’s own, individual, future beyond death, and the future of the religious kingdom you belong to. This hope also determines how you understand martyrdom — giving up one’s own life (or taking the lives of others) in the name of your cause (or against the name of theirs).
It’s worth calling this out — making sure we’re sensitive to the distinction between this Islamic vision for the future, and the mainstream, because it’s in the actions of believers, on the ground, that we are able to compare the qualities of different religious visions of, and for, the world.
What we see in events like this is a clash of two religious visions for the world — a vision for hope secured by powerful conquest, the establishment of a kingdom, and martyrdom for that cause, and a vision for hope secured by God’s sacrifice for us, and his resurrection, which involves a kingdom established by the Cross, for ‘people of the Cross.’ This first vision is the motivation at the heart of the ISIS cause, and the latter is at the heart of a Christian view of martyrdom and hope. There’s also, potentially, a chance to examine a secular vision for the world — which typically involves peace, or an end to conflict (perhaps especially religiously motivated conflict).
Every world view — whether religious, or secular, grapples with this brokenness, and aims to find a path towards an unbroken world. Clashes of world views — like this one, give us opportunities to examine what world view actually provides a meaningful path towards such a transformation. Such a path is fraught, I don’t think there are many solutions that don’t perpetuate the brokenness. I’ll suggest below that it’s only really Christian fundamentalism that will achieve this, the Atlantic article articulates the problem with potential non-religious/secular solutions, especially the military option.
“And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have givenbaya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?”
These 21 Egyptian ‘people of the Cross’ are not saved by their martyrdom.
They do not have extra hope because of the way they die.
They may have died because of their hope — hope placed in Jesus, but as Christians, our hope is not in our own lives, or our own deaths, as contributors to the cause of God’s kingdom, but rather, in God’s own life, and death, in the person of Jesus.
Jesus’ death. Not our own. Is where Christians see the path to paradise.
This produces a fundamentally different sort of kingdom. It produces a fundamentally different sort of fundamentalist. A person living out the fundamentals of Christianity is a person who is prepared to lay their life down as a testimony to God’s kingdom, out of love for others — to lay down one’s own life for the sake of our ‘enemies’ and our neighbour. Because that is what Jesus did, for us.
Here’s what Paul says is at the heart of Jesus’ martyrdom. His death. From his letter to the Romans.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
Later, in the same letter, Paul shows how this martyrdom becomes the paradigm for a Christian understanding of life, death, and following God. A very different outlook, and a very different fundamentalism, to what we see in ISIS.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship…”
And a little later in the same part of the letter, we get an outline of a Christian response to these truly evil, and horrific, killings — and, indeed, to all the evil and brokenness we see in the world. When we live like this, we live out our hope, we become living martyrs, embodying the values of our kingdom and following our king.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This is a picture of Christian fundamentalism. It’s an exploration of what it looks like to be people of the Cross.
Bizarrely — the horrific killings ISIS is carrying out, especially as they execute ‘people of the Cross’ actually serve Christians who are looking to express our own hope as we offer ourselves in this way.
We bear witness to his martyrdom in the way we lay down our lives for others — even as we live. Christian martyrdom involves bearing faithful witness to the one martyr who gains access to the Kingdom through self-sacrifice. When we get this picture we can be confident that God’s power rests in our weakness, rather than our displays of strength. This produces a fundamentally different political vision and approach to life in this world, and the comparison is never starker than it is when it is displayed in the face of a religious ideology like that of ISIS, which mirrors, in so many ways, the religious ideology of the Roman Imperial Cult, and its persecution of the earliest people of the Cross.
This is the hope one of the earlier Christians, Tertullian, articulated to the Roman Emperor, as he called on them to stop executing Christians, his argument, in part, because killing Christians was not serving the Roman Empire, but God’s empire. He wrote a thing to Rome called an Apology — a defence of the Christian faith, and the place of Christianity within the Empire. It’s where the quote in the image at the top of the post comes from. This quote (this is the extended edition).
“No one indeed suffers willingly, since suffering necessarily implies fear and danger. Yet the man who objected to the conflict, both fights with all his strength, and when victorious, he rejoices in the battle, because he reaps from it glory and spoil. It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained. This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…
…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.
This is what Christian fundamentalism looks like. We need more Christian fundamentalists. More Christian martyrs. More people expressing this hope in how they live and die.
This, amongst my prayers of lament for those killed as people of the cross, and in the face of the brokenness of the world, and the horror of the Islamic State’s vision of ‘hope,’ is what I’m praying. That God will bring justice for these killings, but that he will also bring hope through them, as people catch sight of the sort of lives lived by Christian fundamentalists. People of the cross.
I want to be that sort of person — a person of the cross — to be known that way, this is one of the realisations I have come to while processing these killings.
It is only when we whose hope, whose visions of the future, are shaped by Jesus live as Christian fundamentalists, in the Romans 12 sense, that we have any hope of really, truly, presenting the Christian hope for the world — God’s hope for the world — to others.
It’s the only real hope we have of fighting other visions for the future, or breaking the cycle of brokenness.
What other response won’t just perpetuate feelings of injustice? What other responses have any form of justice that doesn’t simply create another perpetrator of injustice? Visions of justice that don’t involve this sort of Christian fundamentalism — giving up one’s ‘rights’ for vengeance simply create a perpetual system of perpetrators. This is perhaps seen clearest as we see boots on the ground (Egypt) or off the ground (The US) in secular visions of the future — military responses to ISIS, and in the actions of ISIS itself. Violence begets violence. Ignoring violence also begets violence. Something has to break that cycle — and the Cross, and the people of the cross, Christian fundamentalists, provide that circuit breaker. The message of the Cross also provides the path to paradise, the path to a restored relationship with the God who will restore the world, and the path to personal transformation both now, and in this transformed world. That’s a vision of the future I can get behind.
Eloquence, after all, has its own place among the supreme virtues. Of course, all the virtues are equal and equivalent, but still, one is more beautiful and splendid in appearance than another. This is the case with the power that I am talking about: having acquired all-embracing knowledge, it unfolds the thoughts and counsels of the mind in words in such a way that it can drive the audience in whatever direction it has applied its weight. And the greater this power is, the more necessary it is to join it to integrity and the highest measure of good sense. For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen
If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.
Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.
Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.
In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5
He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18
I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.
There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.
Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.
Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.
Here’s his answer.
Here are some of the highlights…
“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
“Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”
“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”
“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”
Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.
The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.
The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28
If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.
We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.
The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.
Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.
There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)
Fry says, of Jesus:
“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”
So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.
Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…
“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”
The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…
But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).
Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).
His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.
“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11
An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12
In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…
“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4
A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15
Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.
Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.
“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”
Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.
“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”
He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.
“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”
Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.
“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”
Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.
“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”
If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.
But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:
“So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18
Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.
John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”— John 1:9-11
This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.
What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24
I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.
If only I had a British accent.
I often think about what my job is, as a communicator. How I can best pass on my thoughts, or whatever data it is I’m looking to transmit to my audience in the way that is most helpful.
I think the absolutely holy grail of communication is clarity. Clarity is loving. Clarity, I think, is vital for persuasion. And I think all beneficial communication is persuasion — whether it simply seeks to educate, whether it seeks to reaffirm and encourage an already held position, or whether it seeks to shift and transform somebody via the act.
Good communication is about, as much as possible, getting everything else out of the way of the thing you are trying to communicate, but it’s also about making the thing you’re communicating about as full and real as possible.
Sometimes people think clarity is a synonym for simplicity. But it’s not.
Sometimes people think nuance is a synonym for ambiguity and an enemy of clarity. But it’s not.
Let me demonstrate in pictures.
This is a diamond.
These are all diamonds.
Imagine someone asked you to show them a diamond. Perhaps, for context, you’re a jeweller and the someone is a young man wanting to buy a ring.
The first two examples are absolute communication failures. Uncut and ambiguous. Then there’s a simple diamond. A complex diamond. A nuanced diamond. And a compelling diamond.
Which of these options are actually helpful to the person who wants to see a diamond, the sort of diamond they might take to their beloved?
It’s tempting to think that the best communication takes the easiest path for the audience to take to understand that this thing is a diamond — so the simple one that uses the least lines (let’s take for granted that communication is an act of making yourself understood and that it’s not good enough to just take the option that’s easiest for the communicator, serving up unedited, ambiguous, dross). That simple diamond doesn’t really help anyone except card players, magicians, or people playing Pictionary.
The last diamond is what we, as communicators, are attempting to communicate to our audience; the rest, though they’re sometimes held up as archetypes of clarity, are less than the best. Potentially there’s a context for a diamond like any of these other diamonds to be the thing that you are producing. Some of the others may be of value in a technical manual. But when I communicate I want people to appreciate the full significance — the intricacies of a thing and where it fits in the bigger picture, and how it might become part of the hearer’s life. I think that’s real clarity.
It’s true that you could stare at the last diamond for hours, and still appreciate it, but our guy in the jewellery shop who is very busy should get the picture that it’s a pretty incredible, and potentially life-changing diamond pretty quickly, because he’s not going to spend a lifetime in the shop. And I think that’s where the real challenge for clarity (and excellent communication) lies.
Am I Charlie?
I’ve pondered this question a bit since the first tweets and placards started carrying the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ — ‘ I am Charlie’— following the shootings in Paris.
Am I Charlie?
I certainly feel a natural inclination to identify myself with the press, I’ve never quite shaken off the sense that I’m a journalist, even as I plied my journalistic skills in the name of public relations, even as I’ve poured pixels onto white space as a blogger, even now as I form sentences to be delivered as sermons not news stories, part of me desperately wants to be Charlie. I want to strike blows for a free press, for free speech, for the power of the pen in the face of the sword (or in the face of AK47s and fear).
Am I Charlie?
Do I actually want to be Charlie? Is Charlie Hebdo and what it stood for, and published, actually journalism? Or are they simply agent provocateurs operating under the guise of the press, seeking to test the limits of free speech? Even that appeals to my inner contrarian just a little bit.
Am I Charlie?
What about as a follower of Jesus — how much can I be Charlie? How much do I want to align my quest with theirs? How much can I align my life with theres? Certainly there is much of their humanity that I share, but what about their ideology, or their practice? What overlap is there between the tenets of the Christian faith, expressed in the person of Jesus, and the tenets of a satirical newspaper perhaps best expressed in the mockery of those who don’t conform to a left-wing political ideology.
I am Charlie inasmuch as I am human, but I am more than Charlie.
When it comes to my humanity, and how I understand it. I am not Charlie, I am Jesus. This offers a better comfort, a better solution, and a better course of action, in times of tragedy. It helps me respond not just to the situation in Paris, but also the situation in Nigeria, and not just to the situation in Martin Place, Sydney, but the situation in Pakistan.
It teaches me the value of human life, and how to respond to my enemies, and my neighbours.
It teaches me not to respond first by reaching for pen, or sword, but by clinging to the Cross.
Je suis Jesus. I am Jesus.
At least, so far as the Bible accounts for my humanity when I follow Jesus, I am Jesus, because I am united with him through his death and resurrection, by the Holy Spirit.
Here’s what Paul says to the Galatian church in the letter we now know as Galatians…
“ I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Paul’s words in his letter to the Colossian church are handy to hang on to when we’re trying to figure out what this means in the aftermath of tragedy — or, indeed, any where and any time in this tragically broken world.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Je suis Jesus.
This has to be our perspective, as Christians, when horrible stuff happens in this world. It doesn’t let us stand back and not be involved, it moves us to respond to the brokenness and pain around us knowing that Jesus took on the brokenness and pain of others — including our own — to love us, to redeem us, to fix us — even as we were his enemies.
Over and over again the Bible calls us to imitate Christ because the underlying spiritual reality is that we have been united with him, by the Holy Spirit, and we’re being made over into his image and likeness. Our humanity is redefined, and rediscovered.
I’m not just united with him — I’m called to live as a part of his body in the world, the church. To be Jesus to this world, in the midst of turmoil, tragedy, and grief. To point people to God’s solution to the world’s brokenness, not my own.
Here’s what Paul writes to Corinth…
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”
… to Colossae…
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
And to Ephesus…
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
A body is not disembodied. It is not just ideals and ideologies. My body gives life to my thoughts, and dreams. It turns them into action. It makes them real. And in a sense, that’s what we’re called to do when we say “je suis Jesus,” we respond to tragedy in a way that embodies not simply who we are, but who he is.
Being conformed into the image of Jesus in a way that brings certain responsibilities in public discourse, and in public life. Images are powerful. Images motivate people to all sorts of behaviour. Images stir the emotions. The shootings in Paris teach us that, if nothing else. Images can stir crazed gun men to take up arms in the face of provocation and offence, images can draw our attention to the horror humans are able to inflict on one another, and images can unite people in the wake of a tragedy by pointing to some more redeeming features of our shared humanity.
The pen, it seems, is the weapon of choice for the left — not just Charlie Hebdo — but as we digest the events in Paris, and even further afield in Boko Haram, it’s common to see solutions based on free speech, education, hashtags, and other tokenism. Fundamentally it’s the idea that we can talk ourselves out of this hole, out of this despair, that somehow if we just get the words right, we can stop the bloodshed. We can respond to offensive words with more words. And words, of course, should never hurt us.
The sword, then, is the weapon of choice for the right. I’ve read commentators conducting post-mortems on recent tragedies, or suggesting solutions to the underlying issues whose opinions range from giving everybody guns (relying on the threat of mutually assured destruction), or sending in guys with bigger guns to stamp out these issues and bring order.
Je suis Jesus. I am not called to solidarity — or conformity — with those who would wield the pen as a weapon to secure their ideology (like Charlie Hebdo), though I am called to love the cartoonist, the journalist, and, I believe, to value and preserve free-speech (or to be prepared to speak freely, and face the consequences, when speech isn’t free). My identity is not caught up with my ability to speak, to write, to draw, or to have others do this in a way that expresses who I am. Nor, am I called, to solidarity — or conformity — with those who want to take up arms to defend their ideology (like the terrorists, or the anti-Islamists), even if the ideology closely matches my own, even if taking up arms is the response the government chooses this is only my responsibility if I am a politician, or soldier, and there are other ethical issues that kick in there.
There’s no doubt that the Biblical solution, at least temporarily, to the chaos in this world involves a wisely discerned mix of left and right. Certainly the New Testament describes the Government as a sword, wielded by God (and this wielding, as God’s interactions with human history via governments always have been, happens through human agency). And certainly there’s an expectation from the very nature of the Bible, and the nature of humanity, that we are made to communicate with each other, to relate, and to approach problems with words, and reason, not simply with fists. This is one of the things that clearly marks us out from the rest of God’s creation right from the opening chapters of the Bible. We, like God, speak. And things happen.
But I am not in government. I vote for a government. I pray for our government, and other governments. But I am not a wielder of the sword.
It’s simplistic to say Jesus wasn’t interested in words simply because he didn’t write much down himself. He was the word made flesh. It’s simplistic to say Jesus wasn’t interested in the process of government, and saw no place for armed responses to events simply because rather than taking the throne he died at the hands of the government, and rather than carrying a sword he carried his Cross. The reality is much more complicated than either of these caricatures allow.
What is clear though, is that when it comes to transforming the broken world, and when it comes to the transformation being conformed into the image of Jesus involves, there’s a certain flavour to what Jesus did that goes beyond employing pen or sword to triumph over our enemies.
The use of the sword or the pen as a means to fix this broken world will only be temporary so long as their use is detached from God’s own solution to the mess. Jesus. Specifically the Cross. If we want real and permanent solutions that transform humanity for the better, then the Cross must organise our approach to chaos, and our wielding of pen or sword.
Je suis Jesus. The mark I make on the broken world should not be in my name, or the name of my ideology, or my platform. If I am Jesus, if I am being conformed to his image, if I am to represent and identify with him, the mark I make should look much more like the mark he made. Not with the pen, not with the sword, but with the Cross.
Je suis Jesus. How do I respond?
How did Jesus live? What did he call me to do? What does ‘setting my mind on things above’ even look like?
The calls to imitate Jesus based on the theological truth that we are united with him, and being conformed into his likeness, always look like expressions of what Jesus did at the Cross. What he calls us to do— to love God, love our neighbours, and love our enemies.
Look what Paul says in his letter to the church in Philippi. Imagine a world where this is the solution people adopt in times of conflict and you can see how the cross is the solution to every imaginable human to human conflict.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Or there’s these words from his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul talks about what it means to face up to human enemies, with competing ideologies, while preaching the Gospel and taking part in what he later calls “God’s ministry of reconciliation”…
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
And finally, to complete the circuit, what Paul says life looks like when we “set our minds on things above”…
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
The message of Christ — the message of the Cross — is what motivates the sort of virtues Paul lists here, these are the virtues of the Cross. The virtues Jesus displays as he dies for his enemies, as he calls out “father forgive them” not just in the face of the insults of the crowd, but the massive ignomious insult of the Cross, where he, in very nature God, is murdered by the ones he came to save. People. Me. You. People who had set ourselves up as God’s enemies, and showed that enmity by nailing him to a plank of wood in a manner of death reserved for slaves and traitors.
That’s a whole lot of Paul’s letters covered — and a whole lot of Paul saying essentially the same thing. If we are Jesus, if we share in his death and resurrection, and the transformation that brings, we’re called to respond to the brokenness in this world like Jesus did. Stepping into it, experiencing the pain and suffering of this world, in order to bring love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, to others, especially our enemies, not simply because this is a good way to live (it is), but because it points to what God did for us, his enemies, in Jesus Christ, and at the Cross — which is where real transformation can be found.
This approach — being the body of Christ in the midst of a broken world and in the wash-up of a tragedy also helps us answer the big philosophical question that is almost always asked in the aftermath of a disaster — where is your God in this chaos? The answer is that he is right in the thick of it, working through his people. Until that answer is true we’re leaving our world in an existential quagmire.
Until all of us who want to say “Je suis Jesus” start stepping up and carrying our metaphorical crosses (starting at home, there’s plenty of tragedy in our nation, in our streets, in and our homes, as well as the global stuff), until those of us who own the name of Jesus are loving like this, being the body of Christ in our world, we’re relying on pen and sword to answer these questions, or provide solutions to problems these tools are ill-equipped to solve.
Wielding the pen just produces more hateful and hurtful words (alongside beautiful expressions of our shared humanity).
Wielding the sword might save some lives, but it always comes at the expense of others. Those we’re called to love.
Wielding the Cross, living like Jesus, should only come at our expense, mirroring the way that a restored relationship with God, for us, came at God’s expense, not ours.
The pen is mightier than the sword, but the cross dwarfs them both. The cross is how God makes his mark on the world. How he signed his name on the world, his name, which brings reconciliation and salvation to those who take it up.
The Cross guides our use of pen and word, and the government’s ideal use of the sword. The cross is the weapon God uses to transform the world, life by life.
“Why, that he had only cried out that he was a Roman citizen because he was seeking some respite, but that he was a spy. My witnesses are unimpeachable. For what else does Caius Numitorius say? what else do Marcus and Publius Cottius say, most noble men of the district of Tauromenium? what else does Marcus Lucceius say, who had a great business as a money-changer at Rhegium? what else do all the others ray? For as yet witnesses have only been produced by me of this class, not men who say that they were acquainted with Gavius, but men who say that they saw him at the time that he was being dragged to the cross, while crying out that he was a Roman citizen. And you, O Verres, say the same thing. You confess that he did cry out that he was a Roman citizen; but that the name of citizenship did not avail with you even as much as to cause the least hesitation in your mind, or even any brief respite from a most cruel and ignominious punishment.”
This is the point I press, this is what I dwell upon, O judges; with this single fact I am content. I give up, I am indifferent to all the rest. By his own confession he must be entangled and destroyed. You did not know who he was; you suspected that he was a spy. I do not ask you what were your grounds for that suspicion, I impeach you by your own words. He said that he was a Roman citizen. If you, O Verres, being taken among the Persians or in the remotest parts of India, were being led to execution, what else would you cry out but that you were a Roman citizen? And if that name of your city, honoured and renowned as it is among all men, would have availed you, a stranger among strangers, among barbarians, among men placed in the most remote and distant corners of the earth, ought not he, whoever he was, whom you were hurrying to the cross, who was a stranger to you, to have been able, when he said that he was a Roman citizen, to obtain from you, the praetor, if not an escape, at least a respite from death by his mention of and claims to citizenship?
Men of no importance, born in an obscure rank, go to sea; they go to places which they have never seen before; where they can neither be known to the men among whom they have arrived, nor always find people to vouch for them. But still, owing to this confidence in the mere fact of their citizenship, they think that they shall be safe, not only among our own magistrates, who are restrained by fear of the laws and of public opinion, nor among our fellow citizens only, who are limited with them by community of language, of rights, and of many other things; but wherever they come they think that this will be a protection to them.
Take away this hope, take away this protection from Roman citizens, establish the fact that there is no assistance to be found in the words “I am a Roman citizen;” that a praetor, or any other officer, may with impunity order any punishment he pleases to be inflicted on a man who says that he is a Roman citizen, though no one knows that it is not true; and at one blow, by admitting that defence; you cut off from the Roman citizens all the provinces, all the kingdoms, all free cities, and indeed the whole world, which has hitherto been open most especially to our countrymen.
Here’s another interesting bit from very soon after this, in the speech.
You were not, I say, an enemy to the individual, but to the common cause of liberty. For what was your object in ordering the Mamertines, when, according to their regular custom and usage, they had erected the cross behind the city in the Pompeian road, to place it where it looked towards the strait; and in adding, what you can by no means deny, what you said openly in the hearing of every one, that you chose that place in order that the man who said that he was a Roman citizen, might be able from his cross to behold Italy and to look towards his own home? And accordingly, O judges, that cross, for the first time since the foundation of Messana, was erected in that place. A spot commanding a view of Italy was picked out by that man, for the express purpose that the wretched man who was dying in agony and torture might see that the rights of liberty and of slavery were only separated by a very narrow strait, and that Italy might behold her son murdered by the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.
It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it. Yet with all this that man was not content. “Let him behold his country,” said he; “let him die within sight of laws and liberty.” It was not Gavius, it was not one individual, I know not whom,—it was not one Roman citizen,—it was the common cause of freedom and citizenship that you exposed to that torture and nailed on that cross. But now consider the audacity of the man. Do not you think that he was indignant that be could not erect that cross for Roman citizens in the forum, in the comitium, in the very rostra? For the place in his province which was the most like those places in celebrity, and the nearest to them in point of distance, he did select. He chose that monument of his wickedness and audacity to be in the sight of Italy, in the very vestibule of Sicily, within sight of all passers-by as they sailed to and fro.
This little court proceeding helps me get my head around how Romans used crucifixion, and how people understood Jesus’ crucifixion, and it also helps me read this exchange between Paul and Jerusalem’s Roman Commander in a new light…
“As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.”
I’ve spent the last year having my mind blown by four big ideas.
One. The story of the Bible, centred as it is on the death and resurrection of Jesus, required an incredibly intricate amount of planning and execution, which I think is the mark of a truly sublime story.
Two. The way the Bible’s narrative becomes richer if you see the Image of God as a vocational calling to be the living God’s living ‘idols,’ such that turning to, and being shaped by, dead idols is a fatal mistake that undermines the foundation of what it means to be human, and turning back to God, via Jesus, who carries out this vocation perfectly, is where we rediscover what it means to be truly human. Like the people we were made to be. The whole Old Testament seems to explore what happens to people when they live like the God who brings life calls them to — as his representatives — or forget who they are made to be, chasing after things that are sources of death, not life.
Three. What happens to a bunch of theological questions — especially surrounding the Cross, and the questions we want to throw up as objections to God — when you grapple with the concept of infinity, and the idea that God is infinite and we are not.
And four. Just how essential paradox is to Christian theology — which is especially cool when paired with a growing sense I get when I try to understand crazily intelligent scientists (of the Quantum Physicist variety) that being comfortable with paradox is foundational to heaps of modern science.
I’ve thought about other things too. And thinking almost always blows my mind. But these are incredibly untapped wells. Thinking too much about paradoxes and infinity hurts my head, in a way that gives me hope that I’m on the right track… But I do think there’s a whole lot of meaty thinking in these two areas both for Christians and skeptics alike. When we fail to defend Christian belief without these two head-hurting ideas in the mix I think we’re selling our belief short. Think about the essential paradoxes at the heart of Christianity. The Trinity being one God in three persons. Jesus being fully human, and fully divine. The Bible being fully human, and fully inspired. God being fully in control of creation, but our experience suggesting we are fully in control of our own decisions… these go on. And on.
There are also heaps of really tough questions Christians need to, I think, be able to answer. For ourselves, even if not for others. Questions about God’s character and actions in the Old Testament and at the Cross (I tried to articulate my view on this question here), the question of why evil exists at all in a world where God is said to be infinitely good, and infinitely in control (I had a stab at saying what I think on this question here). I don’t think science is a good reason not to believe in the God of the Bible — but I think these questions, and others like them, might be. If we can’t answer them. I can certainly understand people who choose these objections as reasons to walk away from God. Another challenge is, of course, why the church — the people of God — are so very disappointing on so many fronts, from institutionalised abuse, through to the ongoing existence of the brokenness that pervades all our relationships still existing in this community that is meant to have things more together.
Enter Krish Kandiah’s Paradoxology. Here’s a video promo.
It’s a pretty sensational book, I enjoyed its honesty and its humanity. Its willingness to ask questions. I want to say, right from the start, that I would absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend reading it, buying a few copies, and lending it to people. I’d give it to people without expecting to need to have massive conversations defending the content of the book — but there were just a couple of points at which my own personal idiosyncrasies meant I wasn’t quite satisfied with his answers. We’ll get there below.
I love the weight given to the book by Krish’s real life examples. The questions aren’t asked in isolation from real life — each chapter, each paradox, includes examples from Krish’s experience, both as a convert from a largely non-Christian family, in his own family life, and from his ministry. He seems like an absolutely stand up guy. I have no experience of this other than reading about him online, but the presentation of his life, in pixelated form, suggests he embodies the life this book calls us to live. His willingness to ask questions, and to deal openly with alternative answers to some of the paradoxes he raised, demonstrates the kind of intellectual integrity that I think is absolutely essential to any sort of ethical persuasion. I won’t deal with everything he deals with in depth — suffice it to say, the paradoxes mentioned above are all dealt with, with charity, humility, and grace. The book moves from paradoxes raised in the Old Testament to paradoxes raised in the New. There are crossovers, of course, where some paradoxes are only truly resolved by the paradox at the heart of the Bible’s story — the incarnation, where Jesus, the divine son, a person of the Trinity, becomes human. And is executed. I felt a little like this was a weakness — I had to read all the way through to that chapter to really get a satisfactory (at least for me) answer to the what Kandiah calls the Abraham Paradox and the Job Paradox. But that’s a minor quibble, when you think about it, because the Bible functioned in the same way for people who read the OT before Jesus arrived on the scene.
I highlighted 357 passages in the book. According to my Kindle stats. And I’m looking forward to revisiting them as I preach, write, and think, about some of the questions Kandiah tackles.
I’m never sure how useful any book is going to be in actually persuading people to shift their thinking on the question of God. There are plenty of times in Paradoxology where I felt like I was convinced, or had my beliefs reaffirmed, because I already accepted a bunch of the categories Kandiah was operating with, but I wasn’t sure how useful some of those categories would be for people who’ve thrown the theology baby out with the theistic bathwater. If, like Dawkins, a reader thinks all theological categories are hogwash until proven otherwise, this book doesn’t necessarily undo that thinking. It does present Christianity as intellectually coherent, and stimulating, and I think it does a pretty good job of removing theology from abstraction and showing how belief in God and acceptance of a bunch of Christian categories for thinking about the world does have a real pay off for how we live. I think the real benefit for de-churched readers is that Kandiah tackles many objections that people who have a familiarity with Christianity might bring to the table in a winsome no-holds-barred (or no-questions-barred) way, quite removed from a defensive group-think mindset that some might be expecting. While, for the unchurched, or those of other faiths, Kandiah frequently compares his robust Christian account of a paradox with alternative attempts to reconcile the same observations of the way the world is (and various senses of the way the world ought to be).
Again. This is one of the books I’ll be having on hand to work through with people — probably particularly Christians who are struggling with concepts of God that feel too black and white, or simple, but also with people who are prepared to give Christianity some serious thought, the kind of thought where one is prepared to entertain mystery and paradox without needing to resolve them into a neat package.
There were heaps of passages I really enjoyed in the book. Here’s a sampling — and one or two very minor quibbles.
I love this definition of faith.
“The belief that faith is by definition a blind leap into the unknown is so prevalent that often unbelieving friends will say things to me like, ‘I wish I could believe like you do, but I think too much.’ This might sound like a gracious compliment but it is actually an insult – perhaps unwitting – and might be better phrased: ‘I respect your faith, but I’m just not as gullible as you.’ They may as well have said: ‘I used to believe in the tooth fairy too.’ Many people have described faith as believing what you know isn’t true. Richard Dawkins, the vocal atheist and zoology professor, dismisses it as ‘the process of non-thinking called faith’. But the Bible refutes this. Looking more closely at Abraham’s story, there are three things that we can establish about the nature of true faith. First, faith is not a leap in the dark. The Bible’s stories, including this episode in Abraham’s life, are all intended to refute this mis-definition of faith. The Bible is full of testimonials that present reasons for trusting in God. Jesus himself described his words and his miracles as ‘evidence’ for belief. The step of faith is an informed decision. This may sound like a paradox, but it is one we live with every day. Take, for example, the mundane but potentially life-changing decision to cross a road…
…When it comes to crossing a road, we gather evidence with our eyes and ears, and when we are reasonably confident that it is safe, we step out in faith and aim for the other side of the road. Similarly, when as Christians we take a step of faith, we use judgement based on gathered evidence and previous experience, and, trusting in our convictions, we move forward. Abraham had his eyes wide open when he decided to lead his son to Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. He had evidence that God would fulfil his promises. He had already experienced the miracle of God’s provision of Isaac. He had seen that God could bring dead things to life. He knew that his future was safest in God’s hands. So it was an immensely challenging, but not an intrinsically irrational, step to keep trusting God.”
His most powerful chapter — perhaps because it’s the question I personally find most vexing — was the Joshua Paradox, an exploration of the Canaanite genocide. Coupled with the Job Paradox, an exploration of the question of suffering, you’ve got two chapters which, by themselves, are a reason to buy the book. These are the questions he sets about answering:
How do we reconcile the paradox of a God who has compassion on the Jewish nation through all their failures, but then commands them to show no compassion towards other nations? How can a God of love order the annihilation of a whole people-group, the mass slaughter of men and women, old and young, and even animals too?
“Whether we are forced to watch the suffering of others, or experiencing suffering in our own lives, we desperately want to know ‘Why?’ Why does God stand passively by when there is so much suffering going on all the time?”
I like his answers. But I do wonder if one aspect of the answer to the question of how we’re meant to feel in the face of the Canaanite thing is similar to how Job is told to feel, by God, in the end of the Book of Job. It’s not just, as Paradoxology suggests, that God is judge, that the people of Canaan are being judged justly, that our very existence (in the face of universal condemnation for sin) is a merciful gift from God, and that God accommodates people and achieves his purposes by using the only kind of war available at the time — though I think these are all true. There’s also the sense that we’re meant to be uncomfortable in the face of these stories. We’re meant to react as humans. To be compassionate rather than robotic in the face of pain. To empathise with those facing God’s judgment — judgment we also deserve.
Even as God continues to use war and evil to carry out his purposes— assuming that’s how the Romans 13 reality operates, where Governments are appointed by God —we’re meant to do what we’re called to do, as people who follow Jesus, love God, and love our enemies as we imitate our crucified king. We should be moved by compassion, and a sense of injustice and horror about the reality facing other humans, even if this reality is tied up with God’s judgment. I think Kandiah is right, in the video, and the conclusion of the book, to remind us that a properly robust relationship with God includes being prepared to voice our feelings, and our protest, and that this is part of not being crippled by paradox.
It’s nice that Paradoxology deals with Joshua and then Job. Because Job is kind of the human reaction to suffering on a micro-level, rather than a whole nation suffering, we get Job suffering. And asking questions. And being comforted by a bunch of ‘wise’ friends.
I love Job. It’s taken me a while to get my head around exactly what’s going on. Job’s friends spout a bunch of worldly wisdom at Job. They look like they’re doing the right thing, and what they’re saying could have come out of the pages of Wisdom Literature from around the Ancient Near East. They think they’re being Job’s friends. But they’re not. They’re saying a bunch of stupid stuff. The importance of understanding the nature of their ‘friendship’ will, hopefully, become clear in a moment.
Kandiah suggests one of the dilemmas presented and resolved in Job is the question of where God is in suffering.
“Why does he criticize our tendency to walk on by on the other side of the road when we see people in need, when he himself sees all suffering and yet chooses to do nothing? Does God not care? Does God not understand? Or perhaps he is, after all, incapable of stepping in? God’s deliberate policy of not fixing things when we are suffering highlights one of those universal paradoxes – we believe that God is active and powerful, so if he does not intervene, we are forced to conclude that this God is actively choosing to be passive”
Again. The Job Paradox is a stirring chapter. But here’s something I wondered as I re-engaged with Job, and read this chapter. What if Job’s friends acted like Jesus? What would that do to the Book of Job’s approach to the paradox of human suffering and God’s apparent absence?
Here’s how Kandiah sums up the story of Job.
“The book of Job challenges the premise of the paradox that God is either too weak to stop suffering or too mean to bother to do so. This book asserts that there are circumstances when an all-powerful and all-loving God might allow suffering to take place. Acknowledging this point is very difficult to grasp, most of the book of Job argues the opposite case.
Job receives a seemingly endless cycle of visits and lectures delivered by his so-called friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. They all assume more or less that ‘if you sin, you will suffer’ and equally, ‘if you suffer, you have sinned’. They spend hour after hour, page after page, repeating this line of reasoning. Sometimes it feels that Job’s counsellors might be just trying to wear him down with their many words. It makes the book difficult to read, let alone understand. Perhaps the exasperating experience of reading the book of Job is intentional, as we encounter the obtuse and yet insistent counsellors.
Maybe finding Job’s friends infuriating acts as a warning to us to avoid their mistakes. They are earnest and well-meaning, but they are almost completely wrong in what they assume about God, Job and the universe. Perhaps too we may be reminded of the need for genuine humility, the need to be slow to speak and quick to listen. If we follow this advice we will be able to avoid causing some of the pastoral and emotional damage that Job’s friends bring.”
What if Job’s friends had come to Job with wisdom beginning with the Fear of the Lord — exactly the wisdom God confronts Job with at the end of the book. The sort of wisdom that the Israelites who read the finished book of Job hopefully picked up, and carried with them, as they comforted friends and family members (and neighbours) in the midst of real suffering? Surely the real way to be a friend in suffering is not to speak empty words, but words of real comfort (or to just sit, and speak no words at all). Surely the real way — later modelled at the Cross — is to enter into, and share in, the suffering of another, in order to alleviate it.
I love the link Kandiah draws between Job and Jesus… he hints towards what I think might be a profoundly challenging answer to people asking where is God when people are suffering…
“The book of Job points us to another time when an innocent suffered because God’s honour demanded it. The paradoxes that trouble us in thinking about God’s character coalesce around what we as Christians believe to be the most important events of human history – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross we see the perfectly innocent and blameless Jesus suffering due to no fault of his own. What Job was asked to do involuntarily, Jesus volunteered for. Satan was not allowed to touch Job’s life – Jesus gave up his life.
Ultimately, God has not been passive about the evil in the world: he has actively submitted himself to suffer on our behalf. As we shall see in the paradox of the cross, it is because of Jesus’ death that the sin and suffering of the world will be finally resolved. This has two important implications, which help us with the paradox of pain. First, when we suffer we are not further away from but rather drawn closer to the one who suffered for us. Second, when we reach out to relieve the suffering of others we are most like God, because God did everything that was necessary to deal with the evil and suffering in our world.”
If the church is the body of Christ, if we’re united to Christ, if we’re being conformed into his image by the Holy Spirit, then surely part of the answer to the question “where is God in suffering” in our world, is that God is there wherever the Church is seeking to provide comfort in a wise way. God is not absent unless we choose to make him absent, by absenting ourselves. I think God can certainly be present without his church, but our responsibility is to really love our neighbours, like Jesus did, not like Job’s friends did. This was one of the points at which it might have been structurally helpful for Paradoxology to have front-ended the Jesus Paradox. The fullest account of all the other paradoxes is shaped at the foot of the Cross.
It’s a great book. Buy it. Read it. Give it to your friends.
Here are some other bits that I loved.
“…It is only because of our limited time-bound vantage-point that God appears to be unpredictable, when in fact his actions are entirely consistent with his character. We only see a glimpse of what God is doing. Our lives are like a screen-grab from a movie. We can only comprehend a tiny fragment of the total picture, so it is hard for us to understand what God is doing. Imagine that you had never seen the classic Disney Pixar movie Finding Nemo, and you were given a single frame of the film and asked to guess the storyline. In this single image is a tiny orange clown fish talking to a huge shark. You can marvel at the colours, at the amazing graphic skill the digital artists have achieved, and the strange posture of a hunter communicating with his prey. But you couldn’t know whether this is the end of the film or the beginning. You couldn’t tell whether the shark is about to eat the clown fish, or if the clown fish has managed to talk down his aggressor. There is certainly no way of telling that the shark is a jolly aspiring vegetarian who is deeply moved by the clown fish’s story of loss and determination. One picture cannot possibly give enough background information to guess what happens next. Compared to the eternal purposes of God, even a decade of our lives is like that freeze frame in a movie. Of course, God can zoom in and know every miniscule detail of our daily lives, but we are incapable of zooming out to see our lives with the advantage of distance, bigger context or retrospect.
So what should we do when God’s actions (or his inaction) seem unpredictable or irrational? God’s response to Habakkuk is to tell him to … wait for it … yes, to wait for it…
Waiting is difficult, though, because we like to feel we are doing something. But the waiting that God asks for is not tedious passivity – he encourages us to wait actively, giving ourselves to God’s purposes in the world. Waiting involves continually living by the values of the coming kingdom, knowing that one day they will be vindicated by God himself. Waiting is also difficult for us because the more we have to do it, the more we are inclined to give up hope. But waiting can be a powerful testimony of our true allegiance.”
And, on the Cross…
“Imagine watching the ultimate heist movie with, of course, a priceless diamond arriving at a museum. The alarms are set to cover every inch of the display hall, and weight sensors are sensitive to the nearest gram. Extremely careful planning is necessary by the prospective thieves so that at the decisive moment an unnoticed switch or substitution can occur. The diamond has to be replaced by something that is exactly its weight, or all the alarms will sound and the caper is over. This image gives us an inkling of what was going on when Jesus died on the cross. This particular substitution had been planned in minute detail since before the beginning of time itself, and signposted throughout the Jewish Scriptures. You can see those signposts from the moment that sin entered the world. God had promised that if humanity sinned, death would result, but in the Garden of Eden the first thing to die after the fall were not sinful human beings but animals, sacrificed to provide fallen people with the clothes they needed to cover over a nakedness that was no longer appropriate in a world contaminated by sin…
God was building up to the exact moment that his Son Jesus was born in Israel, at a time when the country was under Roman occupation. The death of Jesus involved the ultimate substitution. Jesus’ death did not just satisfy but fulfilled the sacrifice system set up in the Old Testament.
The cross of Jesus is the place where all of God’s plans come together. X marks the spot: this place, this time is where God is resolving the great paradox of history. God uses the tiny details of history to solve the riddle of the universe, demonstrate his perfect love and redeem his broken world.”
Guernica // What Will Happen to All That Beauty
I mentioned I’d been reading deconversion stories this week. I’m not sure if this is actually a deconversion story, but it’s powerful stuff.
““We have become and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things…” 1 Corinthians 4:13.
These are Paul’s words, from his letter to the church at Corinth. He crisscrossed the known world to establish and support the newly formed, and continually persecuted, communities of Christ. Despite his eminence—and I realize this is unfair—Paul has always struck me as humorless, as an incredible curmudgeon. It is surely the case that a great deal of my vexation with him has to do with a kind of nostalgia for the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, though more consistently benevolent and loving, more evolved, one might say, makes me long for His predecessor. I miss the messy, wrathful God of the Israelites, roaring out of dust clouds or burning on mountaintops. Vagaries, the mysteries of death and suffering, and of wonder, are on the surface of that God. He was at once the Israelites’ avatar and the source of everything they were and could be. In the New Testament, His contradictions are obscured, or at least softened, by the sacrifice of the extraordinary figure of His son. Nonetheless, in both testaments, the Jews and early Christians are the protagonists of a grand narrative of the underdog, an epic poem of the oppressed. The God of the Bible, for all the ways He has been twisted into monstrosity by the various agendas of our human history, has always been the God of the trash, of the forgotten and forsaken. Certainly, He was the God of American blacks and of their struggle for liberation.”
Kingdomview // John Frame’s 30 Tips for Theology Students
Someone asked me for my tips on getting the most out of Bible College the other day. If I’d already seen this list, I would have just sent them a link.
CBN // CS Lewis Final Interview
When I was digging about for links between David Foster Wallace and CS Lewis I unearthed this gem.
“Wirt: Would you say that the aim of Christian writing, including your own writing, is to bring about an encounter of the reader with Jesus Christ?
Lewis: “That is not my language, yet it is the purpose I have in view. For example, I have just finished a book on prayer, an imaginary correspondence with someone who raises questions about difficulties in prayer.”
Wirt: How can we foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ?
Lewis: “You can’t lay down any pattern for God. There are many different ways of bringing people into his Kingdom, even some ways that I specially dislike! I have therefore learned to be cautious in my judgment.
“But we can block it in many ways. As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colors, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.
“There is a character in one of my children’s stories named Aslan, who says, ‘I never tell anyone any story except his own.’ I cannot speak for the way God deals with others; I only know how he deals with me personally. Of course, we are to pray for spiritual awakening, and in various ways we can do something toward it. But we must remember that neither Paul nor Apollos gives the increase. As Charles Williams once said, ‘The altar must often be built in one place so that the fire may come down in another place.”
McSweeney’s // I Am An Artisnal Attorney
I could have posted 10 different McSweeney’s articles, such was the backlog in my Feedly… but these will suffice.
“Not long ago, while attending a small-batch honey wine tasting at a meadery with friends, I realized that we bought only organic produce at the local farmers market, ate only free range meat prepared by our traditional neighborhood butcher, and filled our apartments with only free trade, hand crafted furniture. We—and many others like us—insist on authenticity in everything in our lives. We don’t want to eat. We want the fullness that only comes from a meal created by the human experience. We don’t want to drink. We want the buzz that is produced by the draught of a person’s skill. It occurred to me that people who demand realness in their food and homes should also demand it in their legal representation. That was when I became an artisanal attorney.”
Other McSweeney’s // Snopes investigates the Anderson Family Holiday Letter — does what it says on the tin // Speaking for All Christians Exactly Like Me — A Christian novelist reflects on culture // Home On The Range — A long time gun lover is confronted with gun mania, and isn’t sure he likes what he sees.
My Book, The Movie // Authors try their hands at selecting the cast for hypothetical movie versions of their books.
McSweeney’s // Liberal Arts Thesis Sub-Title Generator (list)
Vimeo // Hipster Designer Aaron Draplin makes a logo
Vimeo // We Were Not Made for this World
A Robot walks on a sandy, desolate, planet.
YouTube // Terminator Genisys Trailer: Paradox Edition
Photo Invasion // A guy draws cartoon characters on stranger’s Instagram photos
Some are rude.
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
// Acts 17:26-27
I’ve read a few stories from ex-Christians this week. Prompted, in part, by the story of Ryan Bell, a former Seventh Day Adventist pastor who, when he left the ministry, decided to try to live for a year without God.
As an experiment.
Unsurprisingly, the experiment of not seeking God, or wilfully ignoring God, resulted in God not being found.
One of the common things I’ve experienced as I’ve read these stories — apart from the sadness that comes from reading someone’s account of what essentially amounts to ending one’s own life, spiritually — is the sense that when people deliberately choose to stop seeking God, they shouldn’t be surprised when they no longer find him.
Here’s NPR’s version of Ryan Bell’s story: A pastor goes for a year without God, and gives up on God altogether.
After a year without God, Bell decided he didn’t need God to explain his experience of the world, any longer, and he pulled out a line that has come up in a few of these articles that I’ve read— the idea that science and God are in conflict.
There are plenty of good reasons not to believe in the God of the Bible. This is not one of them.
If you choose to approach belief in God as a hypothesis to test, and you start with the assumption that God isn’t there, rather than being open to the possibility that he is, then no matter what evidence you’re confronted with — the classic stuff like the magnificent beauty and complexity of the world, the profound and intricate quality of the Gospel story, beginning with the creation of the world, the amazing changes wrought in the lives of people who take up this story and live as part of it (which have a fascinating interplay with what we’re learning about the plasticity of the brain — such that these changes are demonstrable and real) — no matter what evidence there is, it is all able to be explained without God, if one assumes God is not there. It’s all so very natural. But this is because, I think, what is natural is natural because it is made by God.
This makes the whole attempt to prove, or disprove, God from the natural a little bit moot. Understanding nature doesn’t do away with a supernatural agent who established nature.
I haven’t read many accounts of deconversion that grapple with this concept. Or with the sense that plenty of unnatural stuff has been introduced into this world (and accounted for in the Christian story) — in the form of evil, sin, and death.
If you have this sort of framework (as presented by the Bible) — where God doesn’t act outside of nature, but rather defines it, and, where nature, as we experience and observe it, has been damaged by sin —then it’s hard for me to see how you can use nature, or science, as an argument for or against God.
If you are deliberately not looking for God, you should possibly expect to not find him (unless you’re a bit like Jonah, or you’re prepared to acknowledge that a certain longing for something that we try to satisfy with all sorts of things God has made is possibly a result of us being hard-wired to worship— in which case I’d read David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, and some CS Lewis).
Here are Bell’s words from the NPR story…
“I think one of the things I’ve learned is that people very much value certainty and knowing and are uncomfortable saying that they don’t know. I find that scientists, by occupational tradition, I suppose, are more comfortable saying they don’t know. That’s kind of the impetus to keep searching. Atheists, I think, are comfortable with saying they don’t know. I find Christians are very uncomfortable saying they don’t know. I think on all sides of this question, certainty is a little overrated.”
I am very comfortable saying “I don’t know” about just about anything. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to know stuff, or that I don’t operate as though the things I think I know are true.
This idea is expanded a little more on Ryan Bell’s own website, where he explains his decision…
“While science has yet to answer every question about our existence and our place in the universe, it has gone a remarkable way toward that end. I expect there will always be mysteries waiting to be investigated, but the scientific method has served us well. Coming as I have from a Christian tradition that flatly refuses to acknowledge the discoveries of science, my faith has limited my understanding of the world and my pursuit of truth. I cannot live in this way any longer. I feel much more confident leaving questions of our physical world and the cosmos to science. I understand that some Christians can reconcile their faith with the scientific account of our origins, but I see no reason for this approach at this time.”
Repeat after me. Science and God are not in conflict.
SCIENCE AND GOD ARE NOT IN CONFLICT.
Some scientists are in conflict with God, some Christians are in conflict with scientists, some Christians are in conflict with God, and some Christians are in conflict with science. But it’s a category error to suggest that understanding the way the world works, in any way, does any damage to God.
Some Christians and some atheists seem to want science and God to be in conflict in order to fit in with different, pre-conceived, narratives about life, the universe, and everything.
I find, often, with deconversion stories like this, the people involved are giving up on a God of their own construction (or the construction of their own strand of religious belief). When I read stories like Bell’s I encounter pictures of a God absolutely not worth persevering with, and a God completely unlike the God who both drew near and revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, through his life, death and resurrection. The God who revealed himself in the very human, but utterly divine, story of redemption unfurled in the pages of the Bible. The God who created all things, wondrously, and gives all things meaning, and being, and life, within (rather than external from) himself. The God at the heart of deconversion stories like this is smaller, more detached, less relevant, and more capricious than the God I believe in on the basis of these actions.
I also don’t get— picking up on another thread from Bell’s quotes, ignored from here on— how any Christians can operate without doubt, or while thinking doubt is a problem. The weird outcry after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welsby, admitted he doubts sometimes, blew my mind. The idea that healthy, growing, living, faith can exist without doubt is completely beyond my experience, and my observations of others.
What Bell, and others, are responding to, I think, is a strange dogmatism within the church that wants science to operate as natural revelation on our own personal terms, without paying heed to the different persuasive agendas at the heart of natural revelation and Biblical revelation.
If the Bible is to guide our approach to science and the natural world— then we need to consider what it says nature reveals, and what it claims it (the Bible) reveals.
I love the notion of the universe being God’s second book of Revelation, from Augustine, and others. When we understand the amazing complexity and beauty of the world we are meant to be confronted with the character of God, and I think what God reveals about himself in the Bible, and ultimately in Jesus, should be in harmony with the picture of God we get when we look at a cell through a microscope, or the Goldilocks Principle, but I don’t think we can ram scientific findings through pre-conceived modern interpretations of ancient texts in a bid to synthesis the two as though they speak to us in exactly the same language. These ancient texts that were written before the Scientific Method was invented. The biggest claim the Bible makes about the function of creation-as-revelation is that it should cause us to seek after a creator, and it should reveal the folly of turning created things into objects of worship. That’s Paul’s argument in Romans…
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
// Romans 1:18-22
If creation-as-revelation has an in built persuasive (or revelatory) agenda it is this — it suggests a creator and shows something of his nature — so we can infer, from our observations of creation that there appears to be natural order and laws that we can tap into in order to operate in the world (stuff like gravity), that there appears to be natural beauty that we are hardwired to appreciate with our senses, and that material things, and even animals, are beautiful and good, but obviously limited, and within our capacity to control, so not worthy of being turned into our gods. The more we know about the material things of this world and how they work the less reason there is for superstition attached to objects — which is why science is a good reason not to believe in rain gods, or worship statues that we have carved, but not a great reason to reject a creator God who gives being to every thing in the universe. I’ll suggest below that perhaps the more significant revelatory function for the world is as the stage in which God operates in his interactions with humanity.
Paul says this knowledge of God from creation is enough for us to earn judgment if we reject God and worship created stuff, but it’s clear from his argument in the rest of Romans that this picture of God is not enough. That we need God to be specifically revealed, in the person of Jesus, to get out of this mess.
Science is great. Science helps us get a sense of scale. It helps us understand the very small space we occupy in a very large and complex universe.
Here’s how Calvin explained the relationship between what science reveals, and what the Bible reveals, in his Commentary on Genesis.
“I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.”
Science is the description, and attempt to describe, material realities. It’s fantastic at dealing with the material, natural, world, and completely unequipped to deal with the supernatural.
Science can’t test God, and certainly not the God described by the Bible. Or the creator God conceived by the predominant monotheistic religions.
If God exists — certainly the God of the Bible — then science won’t find God, to prove or disprove him. The material realities measured and observed by science occur within the natural universe, which occurs within this God’s power.
Describing how things happen does not do away with God, nor is God an explanation for where we can’t describe how things work (except that ‘God did it’ is a suitable description of every material thing). There are no gaps for God to be the God of – because God is God of everything. There are gaps in our understanding of the way God did things and the way things work. There probably always will be. God is limitless, his universe is, in comparison to tiny us, in our tiny corner of the galaxy, essentially boundless.
Creation — the universe in its entirity — doesn’t encompass God. God encompasses the universe.
“In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
This is the God of the Bible’s relationship to the world.
When we’re observing life, and matter, and mechanics — doing science — coming to terms with how the world operates, we are observing the workings of this God. The only way science has any bearing on the question of God is when it comes to things God has revealed about his character, or his world, being irreconcilable with scientific discoveries. And science itself is always on the lookout for a better, more elegant and accurate, explanation of how things work. The great strength of science is that it doesn’t get set in its ways. So to rule out God on the basis of a current scientific consensus about something is a pretty dangerous business, especially if God is all the things the Bible claims he is.
Science will describe things that were either made by God, or not made by God (if he doesn’t exist). Science gets things right, it gets things wrong. It changes over time as our understanding of things grows.
If science and the Bible are asking two very different sets of questions — and answering these questions — how can we possibly set them up in opposition to each other?
The scientific method is asking very different questions of the world, and providing different insights into the nature of God than the Bible (though these insights will be consistent, and I personally tend to read insights about God from the Bible into how I understand the world as revealed by science). The Bible is all, from cover to cover, about the redemption of God’s universe through the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ. This story also reveals the character of God— his eternal power, and divine nature.
This is what Jesus claims about the Old Testament, in Luke 24, where he’s teaching a couple of people about himself after his resurrection…
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
Then, later, in the same chapter… when he appears to his disciples, we get a sense of what this explanation included.
“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them,“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
This is what Jesus thinks the Bible is all about. So that’s good enough for me… I’m not sure we can use science to test any of that story— beyond the scientifically vigourous exploration Thomas is reported as conducting on the resurrected Jesus (again, before the invention of the Scientific Method).
I’m not sure how science poses any sort of threat to this story. It might cause us to question some of the mechanics of the story, and when that happens we’re left with questions about the relationship between God’s two books, and which takes priority when interpreting the other (so this is where I think debates about Evolution sit), but those questions aren’t really questions that have any bearing on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Which are historical questions. And not the reasons given for deconversion by Ryan Bell, or others I’ve read this week.
The Bible exists to tell this story, and to persuade us that Jesus is God’s promised king.
The natural— created— universe is the setting for this drama. The natural world is the stage upon which God writes his story, and even enters the story, at its climactic moment.
Both the world and the Bible have God’s DNA pulsing through them because he is the author of both books. There is a consistency created by this shared DNA. We look at both the world, and the story, and see evidence of design, of beauty, of stirring complexity. If we take what the Bible says about God’s plans, from the very beginning, involving the crucifixion of Jesus as true — if it was God’s plan when he made the world — then it’s almost impossible for us to get our heads around how many threads were being woven together in order to present the rich tapestry of the crucifixion, where Jesus enters the story and is crucified. It’s hard to fathom just how many human lives were being orchestrated to tell this story over so many thousands of years such that, for example, being hung on a tree was understood as a marker of being cursed for the Jewish audience, and crucifixion (being nailed to a tree) was a punishment for people who claimed to be kings within the Roman empire.
Like a good movie director makes sure the setting of the story helps the characters enact the story, God established the world in a way that helps the story of Jesus stand out in vivid colours. But if we assessed the story – and the question of God’s existence – purely on natural questions we’re missing the big picture. We’d be like movie watchers who ignored the story and focused on the set design, not just the design, but the materials used. They’re interesting questions, especially for actors in the production who want to know if different parts of the set will bear their weight or be suitable for their own purposes — but they’re not the main question. They’re great questions for us to ask, and asking them will give us a greater appreciation of the director when we get a sense of the quality of construction and materials selected — and they’ll be profoundly useful for us as we live, but they’re not going to point us to Jesus. Which the Bible does. Profoundly.
The Bible is great, like science it helps us see our place in the very large universe, and our place in the heart of God, we are so tiny, our life spans are so small in the scheme of eternity, and yet, God entered this planet, this relatively tiny planet, as a human, in the backwaters of an Imperial outpost, he became lower than the lowest human, in the manner of his death, and he died, out of love for humanity, putting those who follow him at the heart of the universe.
That’s what is at stake in deconversion based on science — an existential question — are you a fleeting speck in the scheme of eternity, or did the God who made the universe in its entirety give up his life for you? I know which story I prefer. I know which story meshes better with a view of the world that radiates majestic beauty, and intricate, integrated, complicated order.
I see no reason not to approach the world through this framework at this time.
I think I’ve mentioned my DFW fanboyism once or twice before… I love the way he writes, and the way he thinks about writing, and the way he talks about thinking about writing. So. This book — Quack This Way — a transcript of an hour long chat between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the author of the dictionary of usage that he reviewed, quite famously, is fantastic. In it DFW shares a bunch of his thinking about writing, distilled here for your edification.
I love this description of his own view of his deficiencies as a writer. I think, because I can relate to it…
“My main deficit, at least in terms of nonfiction prose, is I have difficulty of being as clear as I want to be. I have various tricks for working around that and making it kind of charming to watch somebody trying to be clear, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t be clear and compressed in the way that, say, parts of the preface of your dictionary that I liked very much are clear and compressed.”
And I have a strange phobia that there’s a crucial point and I haven’t transmitted it satisfactorily, so I have to say it again a different way and then later on again a different way. And I think I lean . . . There’s a Poe thing, right? “One out of one hundred things is discussed at great length because it really is obscure. Ninety-nine out of one hundred things are obscure because they’re discussed at more length than they need to be.”
I also really enjoyed reading this account of his famous essay Tense Present — the aforementioned review of Garner’s dictionary. It was commissioned by The New Republic, but DFW was so excited by his review that it blew out the assigned word limit and deadline. I can totally relate to that. Then. Harper’s magazine ran half of what DFW wrote, finally, DFW published the whole, unabridged, 62-page behemoth in his Consider the Lobster (a great collection of essays). Here’s his reflections on this little series of events. Those of you who know how I feel about word limits will know why I love DFW and his writing (and why this post is so long).
BAG: “Were you happier with the full-length version that appeared in Consider the Lobster than you were with the one that appeared as “Tense Present” in Harper’s?
DFW: Well, sure. Harper’s cuts real well. This is part of the problem with what I do: I end up giving them five times as much as they can use sometimes. With the Harper’s piece, it was maybe twice as much. Which means I need magazines that cut real well, or editors who cut real well. Harper’s, they cut it okay, but they cut out most of the things that for them were dry or academic, which was actually the meat. They left in, like, pants analogies that were funny and zingy, but the actual essay is meant to advance a certain kind of argument through both fairly meticulous—not scholarly because it’s more pop than that—and fairly sedulous argumentation, and zingy, pop, informal things, and they cut out a lot of the sedulous stuff. The Harper’s article is probably more fun to read. The version that’s in the book, I think, is a heck of a lot better, pace the terrible capitalization and ital versus [rolling eyes] tone-quote question.”
Anyway. Here are some selected gems about writing from Quack This Way.
“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader—even though it’s mediated by a kind of text—there’s an electricity about it.”
“In my experience with students—talented students of writing—the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this.”
Part of this involves punctuating to control how fast or slow a reader digests what you’ve written. Not just for meaning (though they’re related).
Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate. One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.
I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating.
The goal is a frictionless experience for the reader…
One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favourable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader. That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it—the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?
Because writing is about a relationship — a communion — a communication — between writer and reader. Except when it’s used for something more sinister.
Well, you get down to certain axioms about what the language is and what it ought to be used for. And you and I, I think, are essentially gooey-hearted humanists, and we want it to vivify and facilitate . . . we want it to help inter-human relationships of various sorts. But language is also a tool of persuasion. Propaganda, right? We have a president who apparently doesn’t need to use the language well because as he’s speaking, behind us are little banners—talk about Orwellian—“Fighting the War on Terrorism.” Right? Have you seen this? These press conferences? No longer do we need a president who’s an example of an articulate, thoughtful person because we’ve got behind him this sort of almost hypnotic set of messages that someone has discovered that, with some base, those actually work better at creating a favorable impression than having a well-spoken, apparently thoughtful president.
“In the real writing world, one of the axioms is that the reader doesn’t care about you. You know, the fact that this is you means absolutely nothing to them. The fact is, what can they get from this document that is going to require time, and perhaps money, for them to read? It’s a very different paradigm to come at writing from.
This means if you want to do the relationship stuff you have to be the one who cares about the other person, giving them a reason to read or listen — DFW suggests this is the difference between ‘communicative’ and ‘expressive’ writing…
“… there’s a real difference between writing where you’re communicating to somebody, the same way I’m trying to communicate with you, versus writing that’s almost a well-structured diary entry where the point is [singing] “This is me, this is me!” and it’s going out into the world.
What I talk about is that one of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. Right? “I am the center of my own world, my thoughts and feelings are more immediate, therefore . . . ” I mean we all know the drill, right? When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer—when they start wanting to get better—they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
Thinking this way about writing — and trying to improve as a writer — could also make you a better person all round…
“It’s true, I think, that a lot of the muscles you use, skills you use, in trying to get better as a writer, are skills and muscles that pay off in ways that don’t immediately seem to have to do with writing simply because language and interpersonal communication is to a large extent . . . it’s our world, right?”
This also changes the way you open a piece of writing (and structure it from there through to the end).
A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.
The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.
I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.
DFW trots out a bit of advice that I’ve seen elsewhere — don’t just read stuff you like, sit down and write it out. It’s a bit like dissecting a specimen in a laboratory.
“Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”
It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good . . . ,” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them. And so that was just a random exercise that I could think of. I didn’t know other people . . . I know James Jones had a writing teacher who made them retype great books, but I think the book was right there and they were just retyping. They were supposed to learn through their hands, or something kind of flaky.
Hunter Thompson did it with The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, Cicero did it for speeches and poetry he admired, Nicholson Baker, one of my other favourite essayists/authors does it… apparently Robert Louis Stevenson also suggested it.
“For my part, in the daily exercises of youth, I used chiefly to set myself that task which I knew Gaius Carbo, my old enemy, was wont to practise : this was to set myself some poetry, the most impressive to be found, or to read as much of some speech as I could keep in my memory, and then to declaim upon the actual subject-matter of my reading, choosing as far as possible different words. But later I noticed this defect in my method, that those words which best befitted each subject, and were the most elegant and in fact the best, had been already seized upon by Ennius, if it was on his poetry that I was practising, or by Gracchus,” if I chanced to have set myself a speech of his. Thus I saw that to employ the same expressions profited me nothing, while to employ others was a positive hindrance, in that I was forming the habit of using the less appropriate. Afterwards I resolved, — and this practice I followed when somewhat older, — to translate freely Greek speeches of the most eminent orators. The result of reading these was that, in rendering into Latin what I had read in Greek, I not only found myself using the best words — and yet quite familiar ones — but also coining by analogy certain words such as would be new to our people, provided only they were appropriate.” — Cicero
Both Desiderius Erasmus, in the 16th century, and more recently, Nicholson Baker, suggest when you find stuff you like you should copy them down into a book of memorable writing, a Commonplace book, which you can read more about in Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall. I like the idea that this blog functions as something like a commonplace book, as well as a filing cabinet. And I’m thinking about typing quotes out rather than just copying and pasting. But I think there’s also, potentially a link between writing stuff out by hand, rather than typing, and getting a better sense of the way the words flow together. I’ll chuck some more stuff about Erasmus, and from Nicholson Baker, in the comments.
“The fact of the matter is that good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”
“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader—the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing—maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.
it becomes very tempting to go, “Oh, what’s good? Okay, look at that guy over there: that’s good.” Just be aware that that guy is looking at other people and going, “No, no, that’s good.” And like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.
So probably the smart thing to say is, if you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.
So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
I don’t do this (or the next tip), I don’t draft much at all. I write too much and then I chip away until I’ve got something approaching something that I’m happy with. I hit publish, and I move on.
But getting an insight into how great writers write is always interesting.
BAG: So you don’t put much stock in that, the mechanical typing of it, as opposed to really mentally trying to recreate something?
DFW: Here though, I mean I’m 43, and we get into the weird age thing because for my students, many of whom compose on a typewriter, that might actually be a useful exercise. The writing writing that I do is longhand.
BAG: You write everything in longhand?
DFW: Well, the first two or three drafts are always longhand, yeah. Only because I went through this school where they made me write a lot and it was right before computers became ubiquitous. And I just find that it makes me . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention. Like, is the clause that I just . . . does this make sense, what I just said? Which is very difficult, at least for me, to keep in mind when I’m actually writing the thing, unless something slows me down.
Apparently CS Lewis also wrote using pen and ink, not a type writer. Here’s a quote from Alister McGrath’s biography, and another from the preface to a published collection of his letters.
“Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”
“Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.
When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”
Both of these quotes feature in this post by Tony Reinke.
I think DFW and CS Lewis occupy similar positions in the literary stratosphere, both are particularly, in my mind, attuned to thinking about the human condition, Lewis as a Christian, and DFW as someone faced with the crushing and overwhelming nature of life without God. His stuff on humanity is always particularly rich. Which is part of why I love his writing. DFW listed The Screwtape Letters as his favourite book in this list. Here’s a stunningly poignant obituary from DFW’s friend Jonathan Franzen that discusses, in a way, the relationship between Screwtape and DFW’s suicide. And I think shows a little of how despite similarities, Lewis and Wallace took such divergent paths in life (this little piece that looked at what happened to Lewis’s self-reflection upon his conversion to Christianity — it faded as he found his identity elsewhere — in contrast to Wallace’s self-insight that may or may not have contributed to his death is pretty interesting reading alongside the Franzen piece). But I digress. Into some pretty dark territory. Lewis — via his discovery of value through the love of God poured out at the cross — offers a better way out of darkness than Wallace found (at least, according to Franzen).
BAG: When you’re writing nonfiction, how do you go about research and then organizing your thoughts when you’re writing a long essay?
DFW: I find it very difficult. The truth is that most of the nonfiction pieces I do are at least partly experiential. They involve going to a place, talking to people, taking notes. My fondest wish is that no one would have the kind of process I have with it. I end up taking a hundred times more notes than I need. My first draft usually approximates somebody in the midst of an epileptic seizure. It’s usually about the second or the third draft where I begin having any idea of actually what this thing is about. So my own way of doing it, it’s not very economical in terms of time. It is just doing it over and over and over again and throwing stuff away and, you know, whining and crying to friends and stuff and then going back and trying it over again. I think there are very few professional writers—and certainly very few people who are doing things like having to supply good briefs or opinions in the law—who would want to or could afford to go through a process like that. My process appears to be getting precipitate out of an enormous amount of solution. I wish it weren’t. I heartily advise people not to develop a process like that. I can get away with it because I don’t do many nonfiction pieces. I couldn’t make a living doing them because just one takes me six months
Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it. If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know—and people are always interested and want to know what you do—most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.
I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.
Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential. The closest I’ve come to actual argumentative pieces are book reviews, and I mean straight-out, you-got-300-words book reviews. And at a certain draft, at a certain point in those drafts, I always make an outline. But that’s because I’ve got 300 words, which for me is very tight. How am I going to make it tight?
“…a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.”
He spends a bit of time exploring why so many people who are qualified as ‘writers’ — writing in all sorts of professional capacities — are so bad at writing (even if they’re very good at reading). It’s touched on a little in the quote above, and expanded below.
Now, this is presuming that you’ve got a reader who is bright, literate, well-educated, and paying attention. Given the amount of verbosity—particularly in bureaucratic, institutional, legal, and scientific writing, including the stuff that gets published—indicates to me that there are certain audiences that aren’t especially bothered by this. Why that is I don’t know except that a lot of them tend to be audiences composed of professionals who went through a long apprenticeship that meant reading huge amounts of this kind of stuff, and they sort of got brainwashed or maybe inured to it in some way. From the point of view, like you, of somebody who just loves the language and thinks it’s hard enough to be clear anyway, in the default case the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible, is usually the best policy.
I love some of the stuff he says about jargon – political, advertising, and legalese style communication where new, non-plain, dialects are used. Based on agendas other than communication-for-human-relationships.
One answer is the fact that people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority. For me, I’ve noodled about this a fair amount because a lot of this sort of language afflicts me. My guess is this: officialese, as spoken by officials, is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose.
My guess is one of the reasons why we as a people tolerate, or even expect, this officialese is that we associate it with a different form of communication than interpersonal—Dave and Bryan talking together. That the people who are speaking are in many senses speaking not as human beings but as the larynx and tongue of a larger set of people, responsibilities, laws, regulations, whatever. And that is probably why, even though it’s dreadfully ugly to the ear and why if you think hard about it, “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times” is actually likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of people than, “Please keep an eye on your stuff at all times.” Nevertheless, there are imperatives behind using the language that way. And some of it is to be antihuman.
And, lastly, I love that he points out that clarity, achieved largely via plain language, also comes through elegance and craftsmanship, where the interest of the reader is paramount.
BAG: Let me ask you this. If plain language is a good thing, why is it also a good thing to have an ample vocabulary?
DFW: Well, for a couple of reasons. One, plain language doesn’t mean all little, monosyllabic words. The general rule of thumb is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation. Sometimes the situation you’re describing is specific and technical, and a small word won’t do. Probably the other big thing is that there’s this thing called “elegant variation.” You have to be able . . . In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.
Here are some things I enjoyed online this week.
Grantland // The Raid
A piece analysing True Detective and modern TV through the lens of one exceptionally well-crafted one-take scene.
It’s as if True Detective happens in a diorama. Walking out of a coroner’s office, Cohle tells Hart, “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town. And the memory’s fading.”
Staring at this diorama like a blinking god, watching these men at a crossroads, watching their cars coursing across gray highways is Fukunaga’s camera. With the wonderful cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Top of the Lake), he captures the two protagonists as they are pulled toward their inevitable reckoning.
In the early episodes, this perspective has a unique power. It’s like Cohle and Hart are the only two people on earth. True Detective’s pacing mirrors Cohle’s drug use. In the first three episodes, it’s moody and ponderous, as Cohle pounds cough syrup and swallows ’ludes. But as Cohle hooks back into the “Crash” persona and meets up with his old Iron Crusaders cohort, switching to speed and coke, Fukunaga tightens the vise — the cutting gets quicker, the scenes play faster, and the camera movement goes from languid to frenetic.
Grantland // The Birdcage
An examination of the movies that are being made, and just how little originality is out there. I love this description of a scene from the movie Birdman.
“Now, in a hospital bathroom, he finds himself face to face — or really, beak to beak — with not only his own remade reflection but Birdman himself, who has, in full costume, made himself comfortable on the commode in a way that reawakens questions about certain superhero practicalities that have crossed the mind of every kid who ever read a comic book. So there they are, the two of them, taking each other in: silent, irritated, perplexed. Whatever kind of contest between Riggan and Birdman we’ve just been watching, it seems to have ended in a futile tie.
What does this moment mean? In the movie’s artistic scheme, it means Riggan can’t ever truly free himself of the needy, frail ego that his sturdy, gruff alter ego represents. But if you work in or follow the movie business, what we have here is a grim joke with a grimmer punch line: There is no escape anymore. We will never get away from Birdman, even as he threatens to poop all over everything. If movies have, for a century, been the repository of our dreams, and every generation gets the dreams it deserves, then ours is Rodin’s The Thinker reimagined as a superhero poised on the edge of the crapper, and the rest of us poised on the edge of … well, it may be a little extreme to invoke the abyss. But we’re on the edge of something, and thesomething is big and dark and annihilating. So call it what you will, but come up with a name fast, because we’re all about to get sucked in.”
I’ve spent a bit of time wondering about how, given the emerging sense that video games are an art form, we’ll start to see some interesting stuff that goes beyond the ‘games make young men violent’ trope exploring the idea that how we approach games, and in game decisions, might reveal something about our own character, and also teach us about the world around us. This is an interesting exploration about how games where you play as someone not like you, or very like you, might do different stuff for you. I’ve also read some cool stuff like the dad who watched as his four year old played GTA, just as an emergency services worker (alternatively, there’s this violent cussing grandma playing it very differently – language warning), how another guy played Skyrim committed to non-violence (there’s a whole movement of non-violent gamers, more), a guy who played Far Cry 2 as though he only had one life (then wrote a 391 page book about the experience), and a piece about a war photographer who found playing a war game hit too close to home for him when he conducting an in-game photo shoot. What’s interesting to me is the way the approach we take to games completely transforms our experience of those games – such that when people talk about how a game necessarily produces X result for all people who play it, those people are talking about games from a much more linear time, and not really understanding the medium.
But while the solitary experience of reading a book is mitigated by the ability to share it with other people (since everyone more or less experiences the same events in a book in the same order and context), the solitary experience of gaming increasingly loses the sense of being a shared experience the more choice is presented to the player; when you can choose not only whether you traverse none, some, or all of the optional side-quests, when you can choose whether or not to romance one or more of the other characters, when a vital character might die halfway through for me but live to the end for you, when even the name, race, gender, appearance, sexuality, specializations and abilities are certain to be different for every player who takes on this protean persona, a game risks exchanging an increased sense of empathy for a draining-out of the sense of community that comes from having the very same aesthetic and narrative experience as countless other experiencers out there in the world.
I’m not sure that’s a game design problem, exactly…but it’s a design decision that’s important to consider and to keep in mind, whether you’re making a game or just playing one: what does this game force me to be? About what or who does this game compel me to care? Just how far can you abstract empathy? If Hawke can be whoever you want, who actually is Hawke?
An interesting story about the persecution of Christians around the globe, but especially in the Middle East, with a pretty anthropocentric conclusion.
“Just as important is a resolute stand for the principle of religious freedom everywhere. Religious belief is fundamental to many human identities. Freedom of faith must be defended, irrespective of whether the attacks come from totalitarian atheist regimes or theocracies. For the faithful, what they believe about God is inseparable from what they understand about human beings. But God’s rights must never be allowed to trample on human rights.”
I hover between thinking the argument from fine-tuning is compelling evidence for God, and finding Douglas Adam’s sentient puddle quote a useful antidote to overreaching with the explanatory power of this kind of thing.
“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
I find most of the tit-for-tat arguments around the existence of God based on natural evidence neither here nor there. The bits that show how incredibly complex the natural order of things, which I believe are naturally ordered by God, fascinate me, and reveal something to me about the nature of the God I believe in, but I feel like, if I try to unpack why I believe in God, I can see things from the other side of the fence.
I feel like science, the data it produces and our understandings of the mechanics of life in this world, will only ever support the view of the person interpreting the data. I might be wrong. But I think it’s only when we’re able to say that finding out about the universe God made doesn’t actually do anything but describe the world God has made that we can properly talk about science and God. We’re not going to find God’s signature in the mathematical improbability of our existence if we’re not looking for God, and a better place to look for God’s signature is in the way he marks the world with word and image. Jesus. His word made flesh, the man made in the image of the invisible God. And people being transformed by God into bearers of this image.
I think, when I read articles like this, and when I think about why I believe what I do, that I don’t necessarily believe in God because I’m alive, as a product of my very existence, I believe in God because I am convinced Jesus lived, died, and was raised.
This Hipster Business Name generator is pretty awesome.
I don’t know why I find this sort of video as funny as I do.
At church in term 1 next year we’re experiencing the Gospel of Mark as though social media was around when Jesus was alive. Through the eyes of the characters who feature as eyewitnesses in Mark. It’s potentially going to be a lot of fun. Join in from afar. Or near.